Columnist Melissa Weinberger: Time to value education in Easthampton

  • The Pepin building of Center/Pepin School in Easthampton features a gymnasium that was part of the old Easthampton High School.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 5/7/2018 12:31:53 PM

Following yet another round of the sort of divisive online exchanges that are de rigueur in Easthampton, the city is again preparing to go to the polls.

On May 22, residents will vote on whether to replace three ancient elementary schools and a 45-year old, structurally plagued middle school with a newly built, consolidated pre-K to Grade 8 building.

Some of us will cast our votes at Easthampton High School, which was funded and built just five years ago, after deteriorating conditions in the previous building put the school’s accreditation at risk. Others will head to White Brook Middle School, where this past winter, students and teachers layered up in thermals and down jackets to get through days with a nonfunctional heating system. The school was closed one day because of extreme cold — inside the building.

Kids go to White Brook after attending one of the city’s three elementary schools. Maple School, at 126 years old, is among the oldest in Massachusetts. Students there fill cramped classrooms and make do with a windowless basement space that serves as a makeshift gym, library, art classroom and cafeteria. Children requiring speech or behavioral therapy receive services in a converted closet.

Across town at 115-year old Center Elementary, students have the luxury of an actual cafeteria, gym, and library — but those facilities are at neighboring Pepin Elementary. So, kids navigate a two-building arrangement, walking back and forth in frigid temperatures, pouring rain and howling wind in order to access them.

In an era of compulsory tech literacy, our schools don’t have the capacity to accommodate the technology needed to teach or learn critical skills. And while 47 percent of Easthampton is composed of parks, trails and green space, our elementary kids play on blacktop, with sections frequently cordoned off in order to protect them from debris that occasionally falls off the buildings.

Last year, Easthampton families choiced their children out of the district to the tune of $2 million in budgetary losses; their choices at least in part justified by the subpar facilities, which in turn become harder to maintain in the face of these losses.

Despite these conditions, a fervent debate over whether to build a new school continues. Some see the school campaign as an expensive scheme hatched by newcomers to plunder the fixed incomes and scarce resources of longtime residents, burden them with heavy property taxes, and effectively drive them out of the city.

Others can’t understand why a new school has been proposed while we’re still paying off the high school. Still others, despite pages of structural engineering research, budgetary analyses and a more than four-year process examining the most cost-beneficial — although not necessarily the cheapest — solutions challenge the building site, the bid process, the architects’ motives and, irony of ironies, whether the new school will provide space for a Head Start classroom.

All the while, the pothole-weary regularly weigh in with a dismissive “fix the roads” (although road repair has very little to do with local property taxes).

Video footage of school facilities was recently shared on social media, widely publicizing the conditions that students and teachers endure. It made me embarrassed for Easthampton and also extremely worried. Will fully airing what lurks behind closed school doors jeopardize our already tenuous school situation and scare off even more choice-driven parents?

At a time when teachers throughout the country have been striking and worsening conditions in America’s schools are being widely exposed, we can see that our experiences in Easthampton are not unique. Here, and beyond, we have public schools that are in starvation mode, and ordinary citizens struggling to manage with scraps are the ones being asked to feed them.

Of course, using property taxes as a means of funding education is yet another staunchly American way of creating and perpetuating the ways we mete out opportunity and entitlement, and as a nation, we’re basking in the fine results of this tradition in schools that are racially and economically segregated at the same levels they were 40 years ago, with an achievement gap reflecting that disparity.

Watching the videos and gauging the responses has been an utterly depressing confirmation of how we’ve allowed our expectations to sink in order to justify keeping taxes, incomes and possibly our values similarly low. Meanwhile, as Easthampton debates a property tax increase to remedy the dismal conditions of our own public schools, the pristine nontaxable footprint of Williston Northampton School continues to expand — a metaphor that’s impossible to ignore.

We’ve arrived here after decades of government-sanctioned fiscal disasters that have strangled budgets and frozen wages. Routine calls for better schools have been answered with the profit-driven promise of more choices. And yet, school choice has done nothing but compound the challenges of already struggling schools, thanks to a funding formula that removes budgetary resources from the schools that most desperately need them in order to “compete” in this modern marketplace. Then, when our bludgeoned local schools must put their proverbial hands out to correct for these losses, we get “sorry, but I can’t” from our tax-averse citizenry.

Somewhere along the way, the concept of supporting our school system through tax increases seems to have become offensive to the modern American mind-set, and who can blame us? By the time we’ve paid for day care, health care, internet and phone, car loans, and housing with our long-stagnant paychecks, there’s not a whole lot left over.

We allow our cable bill to creep up, we take it for granted that arbitrary fees get routinely sprinkled on our cell phone bills, and we disgruntledly accept the rise and fall of gas prices, but raising taxes to support schools is a pill we can’t swallow as easily.

I know some of my neighbors will get hit too hard to agree to an increase in taxes, and the city is currently exploring options to offset the burden for them.

But Easthampton’s schools are in trouble, and as a community, if we continue to vote against them, both with our feet and our ballots, the cost to us all will be much higher than we realize.

Melissa Weinberger is a writer, editor and parent in Easthampton, where she has lived for nine years.

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